Virat Kohli considers him the chief reason for Indian batsmen getting more comfortable at facing fast bowling away from home. MS Dhoni believes he’s the only ‘foreign pacer’ in the team. It’s common to hear a majority of the Indian camp insist that facing Raghu and surviving a spell from him and his loyal companion, the side-arm, often ends up being more challenging than even the nastiest of fast bowlers in the world. As common as hearing how the 32-year-old throw-down specialist has been the unsung hero of Indian cricket ever since he joined the support staff six years ago.
To the extent that Kohli pulls you aside during an indoor nets session at the Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad to rave about Raghu’s unheralded behind-the-scenes contribution to India’s success of late. Raghu, the captain tells you, provides the kind of genuine pace that the Indian team wouldn’t have the luxury of facing otherwise in the nets. In fact, no other team in world cricket has a throw-down specialist. But it’s not just the pace, though. Raghu can consistently chuck down deliveries with his side-arm — the apparatus that’s used around the world for giving throw-downs — at speeds in excess of 145 kph, even 150, for hours on end without ever tiring. What it does is provide real practice for Kohli & Co for when they face the likes of Dale Steyn or Mitchell Starc.
It’s an unprecedented skill that Raghu, a cricket-mad youngster from the village of Kumta in northern Karnataka who left home and studies to pursue his cricket ambitions in Mumbai in the late 1990s, developed by spending hours in the NCA nets once he was hired there to provide throw-downs in the mid-2000s. At times he would spend four hours by himself, simply chucking balls in an empty net, developing his craft.
The pace aside, Raghu, like Dhoni puts its, ends up doing something that no Indian fast bowler does. While most Indian pacers are those who release the ball, Raghu ends up doubling up as a Josh Hazlewood or a Stuart Broad by hitting the wicket, or banging the ball into the pitch and getting it to jump off a length. That replicates the challenge that Indian batsmen face in Australia and South Africa, and explains why they’ve become a lot more at ease in bouncier conditions. The likes of Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay scored plentiful runs on India’s last tour to South Africa while the Indian captain set a new record for an Indian batsman Down Under when the team toured Australia in 2014-15. All this after Raghu joined the ranks.
Master of the short ball
Another seasoned batsman talks about how Raghu’s mastered the short ball, and there isn’t a practice session where the throw-down specialist isn’t seen busy trying to bounce out his own batsmen, if not having them on the hop. Rahane knows the challenge better than most, having broken his hand against a Raghu snorter at the Wankhede Stadium on the eve of the fourth Test against England. He did take a little break from facing Raghu in the nets but has now gotten over the understandable trepidation of going up against the fastest “chucker” in the Indian team. He has spoken in the past about how, apart from his short-pitched bowling, Raghu also has developed a technique to swing the ball late despite releasing the ball through the side-arm.
Raghu, slender and diminutive but always conspicuous and one man you can never miss during India’s net sessions, has also with time become a very popular member of the Indian team. He’s generally the first one in and the last man out during practice sessions. And often you’ll find Indian players chiding him for getting batsmen in harm’s way.
“Raghu, you knew he wasn’t ready for it and did it on purpose right?” Yuvraj Singh was overheard chiding him in the practice area at Sabina Park on Tuesday. He also manages a lot of the logistics for the team, from sorting out the complimentary tickets that comes the way of the players on the eve of every international match to sorting out the training gear in the build-up to practice sessions. The son of a school teacher, whose family was dead against him having anything to do with cricket, was first spotted by the likes of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, who would often host him in his home at Bandra while using his throw-down skills at a personal level. But he is now, if anything, among the first names that get added to the mix whenever the Indian squad is picked for a series, home or away.
Raghu himself shies away from talking about his skills. The most you’ll generally get from him is a disarming smile and a few “nahi sir, nahi sir”. Except of course the rare occasion he brags about the various bowling actions that he can imitate while chucking balls with a side-arm — a skill that gets him plaudits from the entire team. In that time, he has also become the envy of a number of other teams in international cricket. There have been many international teams who have come asking, but he’s politely turned them down always with that disarming smile of his. The team also talks up the fact that he sacrifices being part of any IPL team so that he can focus totally on being part of the Indian team.
Kohli has, at times, gone on record to reveal Raghu’s impact on his batting line-up. “The success of a batsman does not get much significance for those who work for him behind the scenes. But I believe that especially Raghu has made me very strong by practicing on the speed of 140 km,” he had said after India’s semi-final win against Bangladesh in the Champions Trophy. And when you ask, why in a country like India there haven’t been more like Raghu who’ve tried this novel vocation, the answer from the Indian camp is unanimous: “There can be only one Raghu.”